[Note: this story contains names of people who have died.]
There are a great many Indigenous voices published today, 26 January, on why we should change the date and meaning of our national day. There’s nothing I can or would seek to add to that. This blog is about why we should not only support these voices but call for a change on behalf of all Australians, to enrich our stories and ourselves.
There has been a movement in recent years to use this day to both acknowledge the pain of Australia’s indigenous people and celebrate the heroic survival of the world’s oldest continuous culture. So this is also a story about one man, Algy Paterson, his fight to preserve his language, and the small part my great grandfather played in that.
I’ll never forget the first time my Father mentioned Algy Paterson, Kuruma man, blood relative and last speaker of the Martuthanira language of North Western Australia. My cousin.
It was months after my grandfather George “Peter” Paterson died and my grandmother descended into despair and helplessness. As we excavated the accumulated trash and treasure of a life well lived, my Dad recalled stories (some of which were new, some of which I knew) of his father and our family’s remarkable and regrettable history.
In 1831, Nicol Paterson arrived in Western Australia from the Orkney Islands. According to family legend the Patersons had been shepherds and pirates, supplementing their income by tying lanterns to the sheeps’ tails during storms. Ships at sea would mistake the rocking lanterns for safe harbor and dash themselves on the rocks and the Patersons would loot them for valuables. Nicol left Scotland with Her Majesty’s Customs on his heels, eventually settling in Pinjarra.
Nicol “took leasehold” on property called Creaton on the lands of the Noongar people. Not long after, in 1834, an estimated 70 Bindjareb Noongar men, women and children were murdered by a millitary detail led by then WA Governor James Stirling. Most of the local settlers were involved in the killing. Some time after 1860, the Patersons left Pinjarra, buying the leasehold on a sizeable sheep station called Yarraloola in the Pilbara on the lands of the Robe River Kuruma Martuthanira people.
My grandfather Peter was born in Geraldton, several hours south of the station. When his mother, my great grandmother, went into labour they set off to catch the packet steamer at Onslow on a dray pulled by two horses. Halfway there, one horse died, so my great grandfather Keith harnessed himself next to the living horse and helped pull the dray the rest of the way.
As a child in remote WA, in winter Peter would develop scurvy, breaking out in large sores. When the season’s first oranges arrived by boat, still green, the family would gorge themselves. When their trousers wore out they would sew kangaroo hide into the seat.
As we sorted through yellowing photos, hearing the second hand stories of my grandfather’s childhood, nearly every photo (except the formal family portraits) had the same caption: Peter and Algy. An aboriginal boy, roughly my grandfather’s age but much smaller, was his constant companion.
“They must have been close,” I said to my Dad.
“Well, yes,” he replied, a bit surprised. “Algy was his brother.”
In 18 years of stories tall and true from my Grandfather, the name had never been mentioned. I knew nothing about Algy or his people. My Dad knew very little too, and I still wonder how he came by this knowledge.
As far as I can determine, Algy wasn’t Peter’s brother, he was his cousin. Keith’s brother Alfred, returned from the war, was Algy’s father.
Perhaps the relationship with Algy’s mother was a loving relationship, a shared connection across race and culture. Perhaps it was a violation in a history of often violent appropriation.
What I do know is this: when the Child Protectorate of Aborigines came to take Algy away, my Great Grandfather helped protect him. Algy’s grandparents took him bush until it was safe to return. In this way, Algy avoided the cultural negation of assimilation.
Was it kindness, blood, or both? In the Kurruma kinship system, everyone is intertwined in full knowledge of their relation to everyone else, stretching back tens of thousands of years. The Scots have a word for this too: clan, from the Gaelic clann, simply meaning children.
The years spent in the bush with his grandparents, evading the Protectorate, left Algy the last fluent speaker of his language, a legacy of which he was acutely aware. It also gave him a continuing connection to country. This would prove to be important.
The first settlers, impressed by the Kurruma’s diving skills, enslaved them in the pearl industry. In 1886 small pox killed thousands. Benevolent pastoralists “employed” them for flour, tobacco and rations. Less scrupulous dispossessed and, in documented cases, slaughtered them. Algy’s generation, and many since, were sent to missions and orphanages.
By the 1980s, fearing the songlines would die with him, Algy Paterson contacted various linguists by post, until Alan Dench, a young academic from the Australian National University agreed to meet with him. Dench wrote his doctoral thesis on the Martuthanira language. He’s now a pro vice chancellor at Curtin University.
As Dench notes, “[Algy] refuses to allow his received knowledge to fade from memory or public awareness, believing it is not only relevant to the Aboriginal people living in the pastoral stations and the towns of the Pilbara today, but also to the wider Australian community. He, rather than any visiting linguist, decided that his language should be preserved in written forms for future generations.”
My Aunt Chris and Uncle Mark met Algy at the Yaraloola in 1982. They sat on the veranda – he wouldn’t go inside. He gave them a message stick to be handed to Peter, his old friend, my grandfather.
Algy died in 1995, at the approximate age of 75. He had a gaggle of grandchildren. His second wife, Dolly, was one of the celebrated aboriginal stockwomen of Western Australia.
In 2016, the Federal Court of Australia determined that the Robe River Kuruma people “have rights and interests in, and a connection with, the land and waters of the Determination Area, in accordance with the traditional laws acknowledged and the traditional customs observed by the Robe River Kuruma People.”
As proof of title, the finding cites (among others) a continuous descent from a Kuruma elder with a long and unbroken connection to country: Algy Paterson.
Many are the stories told to me by my father and his father. I have no reason to doubt their veracity, but nothing to prove it either. Of course the truth is important, but true or not the stories we tell about ourselves are equally important to who we are.
I recognise the courage of my forebears as Europeans in inhospitable lands and the hardships they endured. While my great grandfather Keith was running the station, three of his brothers were serving in active combat in Europe and Turkey in WWI.
The life of sacrifice they led, its challenges and hardships, are part of my story. Their troubled relationship to the land and its traditional owners is also part of my story.
My great grandfather’s act of kindness or clann, and the single-minded determination of my cousin Algy Paterson, led to the rescue, at least on paper, of a dying language. It contributed, 200 years after white settlement, to legal recognition of sovereignty never ceded.
Don’t we need a national day big enough to carry all of these stories, and more?
I love this country. I have lived on three continents. I gave up a US Green Card to reside and raise children here. I can’t think of any more patriotic act, performed by every wave of migrant, even the first freed convicts who remained.
But it always was, and always will be, aboriginal land.
We are, all of us, colonised and colonisers, oppressed and oppresors, courageous and craven. We are Australians. We need to recognise this rich and regrettable history on a day that doesn’t dance on the graves of the first Australians, or deafen us to the tragedy and and triumph of our remarkable past.
I’d like to thank my Aunt, Chris Paterson for helping me learn more about this story.
That was fascinating— complex for me but enlightening. Gayle
Thank you for reading! I appreciate you letting me know.
This was a wonderful read. I started looking into what Holiday is actually celebrated (because I’m from Puerto Rico) and it seems there are many more people who think like you. Our aboriginous people were driven to extinction by colonizers as well and I wish someone had preserved more of these stories. Thank you for putting the time to letting the rest of the world know about this.
Thank you, I appreciate you reading.
What an amazing story and history Keir and so eloquently written! I am in total agreement – we need to honour and show respect to our traditional owners and find another day to celebrate our history.